Saving Your Voice As You Age

July 2016

Our bodies go through changes as we age, but one common problem that can be helped in many cases is our changing voice. It’s not unusual in our later years to find a change in the pitch and loudness of our voice making us more difficult to hear or understand. Often described as breathy, or an older person’s voice, this problem can be frustrating for both the person experiencing it as well as those around them. 

“We can start to see patients experiencing age-related changes to their voices when they are in their 40s and 50s,” says Joseph P. Bradley, MD, Washington University otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) at Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital and the Washington University Voice and Airway Center. “If someone starts noticing a change in their voice, they should talk to their physician. If the change goes on for longer than two weeks, they should be referred to an ENT for further evaluation.”

Vocal Cord Examination

An ENT, like Dr. Bradley, can examine a patient’s larynx, or voice box, by videostroboscopy, a technique used to evaluate the function of the vocal cords using a strobe light to illuminate the larynx.   Through this procedure, he can determine if the change in a person’s voice is due to loss of muscle mass or of the collagen in the vibratory layer. This can mean the vocal folds, also known as vocal cords, are not closing completely, leading to air escaping when a person tries to talk.

Dr. Bradley wants patients to know they do not have to live with age-related changes to their voice and suffer in silence. “This is a quality-of-life issue,” he says. “Humans are meant to be communicative, and we can help.”

There are several things Dr. Bradley encourages people to do to help keep their voice healthy including:

How to Protect Your Voice

  • Drink plenty of non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic liquids. The vocal cords need moisture to function at their best, so drinking at least six to eight glasses per day is recommended.
  • Monitor the amount of talking you do per day and give yourself plenty of breaks.
  • Breathe when talking and take frequent pauses for breath.
  • Use a microphone when you are speaking in front of a group of more than 15 people to avoid straining your voice.
  • Stay healthy by eating right and getting plenty of rest.
  • Continue to use your voice because individuals who are active voice users have fewer problems. As an example, Dr. Bradley says singers often find fewer issues with their voice as they age.
  • Don’t let yourself become isolated; find people to talk to on a regular basis.

How to Monitor Your Voice

  • It is easy to strain your voice and not realize you may be causing damage until it is too late. Be careful when you talk loudly, yell, cheer or scream.
  • Talking in loud, crowded places or noisy environments such as bars, restaurants, large family gatherings, noisy offices or over the stereo or television can strain the voice.
    • • If you must talk over noise, move closer to the person you are talking to so you don’t strain to be heard.
    • • When speaking to people with hearing impairments, speak slower, facing them directly.
  • Avoid unnecessary coughing or throat clearing that can irritate vocal cords.
  • Try drinking water and then swallowing hard to relieve the feeling of needing to clear your throat. If you need to cough to bring up mucous, do it as gently as possible.

What to Avoid to Protect Your Voice

  • Avoid unnecessary non-speech noises such as grunting during exercise, car sounds or excessively high- or low-pitched sounds.
  • Avoid irritants such as smoke, alcohol, some medication and some asthma inhalers as they may dry or irritate the lining of the larynx and vocal cords.

Treatment Options for Patients Who Have Age-Related Voice Changes

During an office visit, Dr. Bradley and his fellow physicians and therapists can help patients determine the best course of treatment based on the extent of the problem.

  • Voice therapy: services for early changes
  • Injection therapies: temporary results to see benefits
  • Surgical procedures: offer a more permanent repair

Dr. Joseph Bradley is taking new patients and accepts a wide range of health plans. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Bradley or another specialist, call 314.542.WEST (9378) or toll-free 844.542.9378 or request a call for an appointment.


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